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Readers were eager to learn about the new ISTEP.

Scott Elliott

Experts to Indiana: Worry less about the length of ISTEP

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was deeply critical of State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education earlier this year for creating a new ISTEP test that he felt was too long.

But experts on Tuesday spoke to a legislative study committee looking at potential changes to Indiana’s state testing system and had this advice for the state: don’t worry about the length of the test.

“If you put it in context, it is a small fraction of the investment you make in students every year,” said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve Inc. “And you generally rely on it pretty heavily to drive improvement in the state.”

Pence was so angry to learn just weeks before students were to take ISTEP in February that the test length had grown to as much as 12-and-a-half hours at some grade levels, he issued executive orders demanding it be reduced. Ultimately a bill was rushed through the legislature with Ritz’s support to cut the testing time by three hours.

Even at Tuesday’s meeting, lawmakers worried that testing was too much and the stakes were too high.

The tests can have big consequences for students, who can be held back or prevented from graduating if they fail. Teachers also now are evaluated based in part on the test scores their students post. They can be fired or lose out on raises if they get poor evaluation scores. Schools with persistently low scores can be taken over by the state.

“It causes lots of pressure on an already high-stakes test,” said Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington. “What else can teacher and school grades be based on?”

Greg Cizek, a researcher who studies testing at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said there could be other strategies that work better for some types of accountability.

“Legislatures, by and large, took the cheap and easy way out of fixing educator personnel evaluations by using student test data,” he said. “It was an existing mechanism you could layer a purpose onto, that you could use it for accountability. It didn’t cost much more, and you could do it in one term of office.”

Even so, there aren’t many good alternatives, Cizek said. Indiana’s teacher evaluation model, which allows each district to choose exactly how much to factor in student test scores in teacher evaluations, has pretty big weaknesses, he said.

“It creates some inequities,” Cizek said. “No state has really figured out a way to do fair, incorruptible ways of doing personnel evaluations. All I would say is we’re at the beginning of that time period.”

It’s not just teachers who worry that too much focus and time is spent on testing. It’s a concern for everyone, including policymakers and parents. But legislators were told some of those fears might be overblown.

Representatives from Teach Plus, a non-profit advocacy group that works to get teachers more involved in policymaking, said data from a study it conducted in 2014 suggests test length, across the nation, is just a small fraction of what kids do in school all year.

Teach Plus found kids spend a little less than 2 percent of their total school time on testing per year, with suburban districts at 1.3 percent and urban districts at 1.7 percent. Federal and state tests, the report said, also took up less time than tests districts chose to give.

In a breakdown of the 32 districts surveyed, Indianapolis ranked within the top half when it came to test time.

“A review of student achievement results as reported on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows no clear relationship between the time spent on testing and student test results,” the report said. “Debating time-on-testing, then, without a discussion of the test type and content misses the point.”

Other studies, however, have raised bigger concerns about testing time, such as one from the American Federation of Teachers, which brought up questions about whether the money and time spent on testing was worthwhile. The Teach Plus study also was revised after critics pointed out errors in the data.